Please visit DU’s COVID-19 website and subscribe to @uofdenver Twitter for updates regarding COVID-19.

With a lifetime spent in real estate and development, Chris Frampton has seen and built it all. From a bustling transit hub like Denver’s Union Station to a village at an internationally known ski resort like Steamboat, Frampton has managed a variety of projects in his career as CEO of East West Partners. On the Voices of Experience podcast, Frampton shares the path that led him to a top Denver-based developer, his thoughts on the current state of the city and what the future of development may hold.

Show Notes

Chris Frampton is the CEO of East West Partners, a Denver-based developer behind local projects like Union Station, Riverfront Park and Cherry Creek West. As CEO, Chris works with a team of dedicated developers who are pioneering new communities in Charleston, Denver, Vail, Steamboat, Aspen/Snowmass, Deer Valley and Kauai. 

Table of Contents

0:57 Finding a solution
3:55 A commitment to quality
5:00 The changing real estate world, or not?
6:29 Creating a “pedestrian paradise”
8:10 A return to Denver’s Downtown
11:25 Developing without gentrifying
13:27 The current state of Union Station
17:38 How East West thinks bigger
19:20 Maintaining employee trust
21:20 Sustainability and design trends
25:56 “Do great work”
27:20 Show notes and credits

In this episode:

Related articles and information:

Questions from students

Transcript

Nick Greenhalgh:
This month on the Voices of Experience podcast.

Chris Frampton:
But it’s not development first, community second. It’s community first, development second. And I think if that’s the mentality that a neighborhood has, it’s really good.

Nick Greenhalgh:
With a lifetime spent in real estate and development East West Partners CEO Chris Frampton has seen and built it all. In Denver, his company is most well known for its Union Station and Riverfront Park builds, as well as the ongoing Cherry Creek West project. Despite the magnitude of those efforts, Frampton is unwilling to relent on one thing in particular.

Chris Frampton:
One of our values is, “No corner-cutting,” and we really mean that.

Nick Greenhalgh:
Frampton joined to discuss the path that led him to a top Denver-based developer, his thoughts on the current state of the city, and what the future of development may hold, all on the Voices of Experience Podcast, an extension of the Signature Speaker Series at the Daniels College of Business. Chris, welcome to the show.

Chris Frampton:
Thanks for having me. Nice to be here.

Nick Greenhalgh:
Instead of a traditional introduction, I’d love to get a snapshot of your career by looking at it through the guiding business principle that you called out on your professional bio. Do you remember what that is?

Chris Frampton:
No. No idea.

Nick Greenhalgh:
It’s to find a solution.

Chris Frampton:
Yeah, that’s fair.

Nick Greenhalgh:
How throughout your career have you lived that principle and how does it lead you to your current role?

Chris Frampton:
Yeah, I mean, I’m sure lots of businesses are like this, but real estate development in particular is about solutions, especially when you work in places like East West does, where there’s lots of interest in the projects that we’re doing; so, in Denver, that’s Union Station. People are super fascinated about what we were going to build in Downtown Charleston, where we’re working on a historic renovation, or if that’s in ski resorts, like in Snowmass. We have really involved and engaged communities and really involved and engaged municipalities. And then, we also do really big projects that cost a lot of money. And so, when you put those three components together, there are lots of opinions about what you should do. And so, our job as a developer, and I think this is something I’ve just learned over the course of my career, is to really figure out solutions that can generally appease all of those groups.
Impossible to have everybody be perfectly happy. There is no perfect road. There is no perfect sidewalk. There is no perfect office floor plate. But there are solutions that are really good for everybody at the end of the day. And as a developer, one of the great things about the job is we actually do decide what that ultimate answer is, hopefully. So, I would say, course of my career, a few examples of that. A great example actually is when I first started in real estate sales. So, I had been an investment banker in New York and realized I didn’t want to do that; and my dad, who’s a huge influence in my life and career, suggested, “Hey, you need to eat what you kill.”
And so, I had to go and learn how to sell real estate, and we were selling out of six double wides on a golf course that was to-be-built, 30 miles north of Austin, Texas. So, definitely a different product than what I’ve been dealing with in New York City. But I had to learn how to talk with a customer about why it would be a fit for them. Why does this couple, who’s spent their entire lives being filmmakers/doll traders, true story, want to buy a condominium? Or, excuse me, want to buy a lot on a golf course community in Georgetown, Texas? And so, that’s a bit of a kind of solution, and I think it’s something I think about all day, every day. We’re trying to find a solution to a problem, or an opportunity.

Nick Greenhalgh:
Mm-hmm. Great. And forgive me for putting you on the spot there with the website bio.

Chris Frampton:
It’s fine. Yeah. The website bio is left over, and I’ve actually really moved to just very short, “This is my job. These are my wife and kids and dog.”

Nick Greenhalgh:
Well, great. You mentioned some of the work you’ve done and I want to hit on that a little more. From the mountains of Steamboat, to the beaches of Hawaii, and even a crepe shop in the village at Snowmass, East West clearly takes on a variety of different projects. What is one thing you are unwilling to relent on when it comes to your work?

Chris Frampton:
There are a few things that I’m unwilling, but I really think I’m just a representative of the company. There are a few things that we’re just not willing to relent on. One of those is quality. We just aren’t. So, one of our values is, “No corner-cutting,” and we really mean that. We didn’t do the crepe shop, by the way. It’s this amazing woman, Mawa, and she does an incredible job making crepes and has lines of a hundred people to get crepes in the morning before skiing. But, no, we don’t sacrifice quality. We don’t cut corners. And then, for East West Partners, our goal in every project we do is to create a terrific place, and so we don’t want to sacrifice those qualities of place. We think that’s distinct to our work. We think it is things that lots of developers think about. We’re not the only ones. But for us, it’s an absolute.

Nick Greenhalgh:
Great. You recently passed your 20-year anniversary at East West Partners.

Chris Frampton:
I’m old.

Nick Greenhalgh:
That wasn’t my intent. How have you seen development change over the last two decades? What was once popular that now has been phased out of projects?

Chris Frampton:
Yeah, so, I don’t really think things have changed that much. And, pretty interestingly, I don’t think things have changed that much since the beginning of time. I mean, we come together in cities along big transportation routes and people want to be together in communal spaces. If anything’s changed in the last 20 years, it’s the way we focus on walkability. And that’s really shown out post-COVID and particularly today, say for example, in the office market where walkable areas have incredible value. And in residential, it’s even more important.
But I always remember Charles Frazier, who was one of the great developers of all time. My dad worked for him, but so did a myriad… Ron Terwilliger from Trammell Crow Residential and Leonard Wood from Wood Partners. The list is really long. Mark Smith. So, the list is really long of people who worked with him. And if you go back to his projects at Harbortown, they were copied in Portofino in Italy for the walkability. They had a community garden. They had an incredible focus on trails and bikes and kids. So, they were really focused on a lot of the things that we’re focused on. They were focused on connection to nature. So, a lot of things that we think about today are… We tend to think we’re really creative, and we’re probably not.

Nick Greenhalgh:
Speaking of walkability, I want to talk about a current project on your docket.

Chris Frampton:
Sure.

Nick Greenhalgh:
When it comes to Cherry Creek West, you are prioritizing people first by creating a walkable and bikeable plan. What will make this the pedestrian paradise that you’re envisioning?

Chris Frampton:
It’s interesting, because it’s so easy to say we’re going to make it walkable and pedestrian-friendly, and then as we get into the design process and the rezone, everything that the team has to go through, we find out that everybody has a different definition of what “pedestrian first” means. So, I would say we’ve been struggling to figure it out. It’s a little bit about finding that solution we were talking about before. We have the large development review process here in Denver, and so the city of Denver has a lot of input into what our project might look like. We’re partners with the owners of the mall at Tallman, and preservation of that mall is important to everybody. Number one tourist destination in the city of Denver and huge retail tax base and just a place people like to go. And so, trying to figure out how to balance getting cars in and out, loading, and then moving people through and having people be first and foremost, and then being honest about where the site is.
And so, I will say this and I really do mean it. The first lens that we look at every decision is through, “What will it be like to move through this space as a pedestrian?” And so, we try to stay there. Because the truth is we got to do things with cars. They got to go somewhere. We can’t make everything a woonerf. We’d like to make as many things as possible a woonerf, but not always easy to do so. But it is that lens; that lens first and foremost. And honestly, that seems to have resonated with the community groups that we’ve worked with. It obviously resonates with the city and county of Denver. So, so far so good.

Nick Greenhalgh:
I want to continue down this thread and bring a little data into the discussion. During the pandemic, visitors to downtown areas across the country, including in Denver, took a nose dive. A report from the downtown Denver partnership, which we’ll be sure to link in our show notes, found that an average of nearly 50,000 people who were visiting the city in April 2020 down more than 200,000 people from the year before. Those numbers have since rebounded with a recent report showing numbers hovering around 200,000 downtown visitors this summer. With that bounce-back in mind, how does East West Partners think about creating and encouraging a return to community in its projects?

Chris Frampton:
It’s an interesting question. I think there are two things to say. I would first say, look, nothing changed in the last three years, but we’re still focused on walkability. We always will be. I mean, Jane Jacobs said, “There’s two kinds of people. Those who like to walk and those who don’t.” We’re interested in the 50%, well, I think it’s more than that, that want to walk. And so, that’s going to be a focus for us for forever. I think COVID and its impacts on cities can be misunderstood. It’s fascinating to me how quickly all of our memories, our collective memories, disappear. And one example of this is that sometime… I can’t even remember when COVID started. Sometime in 2020. Spring. But I remember a moment where I was in my car, driving around, convinced zombies were going to come out from everywhere. Went to a gas station. Put gloves on to fill up the gas.
That moment, we were shut down. And so, to look at cities and say, “Look, they don’t work when we were shut down,” doesn’t really make any sense. Now, cities happen to be a place where lots of folks gather, so it’s not 20 houses on the end of a cul-de-sac. Cities have lots and lots of people. There’s a number of those people who cannot lock down. Whether that’s because they don’t have a home or because they have some other prevailing challenge that they’re facing. Mental health, obvious one. Drug use another. So, I think cities felt empty because cities are supposed to have people in them. That’s what they are. And when they don’t, they don’t feel all that great. And I want to belabor this because I’m kind of fascinated about it. It’s really fun to say. “Have you seen the hell hole that is New York City?” And I’m like, “Well, you obviously haven’t been there.”
I mean, my brother lives in Brooklyn and would send me pictures throughout the pandemic of folks sitting out on the decks and enjoying Negroni and the new patios built out into the streets. And he was like, “This is the most delightful place ever been. Can we stay like this?” Right? And if you go back to New York, which I’ve been fortunate enough to do over the last six months and I’ll be there in a few weeks, New York is rocking. It’s sort of like people realized how great their streets are and they’ve kind of forgotten. So, look, certainly the pandemic probably almost certainly impacted cities, you could probably argue education, in a bigger way than just about anything else. And there have been challenges, but I think to the city of Denver’s credit, they’ve been on them. They have been extremely focused at the highest levels in the city. And we don’t always love every answer, but like I said, not everybody’s going to get the perfect answer.

Nick Greenhalgh:
Mm-hmm. Our next question here, Denver has received scrutiny in the recent past for the gentrification of the city, with a 2020 report from the National Community Reinvestment Coalition ranking the city second, behind only San Francisco, for most gentrified in the country. Be sure to check our show notes for that complete ranking. How do you balance new development without displacing the current inhabitants?

Chris Frampton:
Yeah, I think it’s really hard. We’ve kind of cheated at East West by developing places where they happen to be urban but there wasn’t anybody. So, at Riverfront Park, Union Station, were empty pieces of land. Cherry Creek West is essentially an empty piece of land. So, I do think it’s a really compelling challenge. I suspect it is a combination of neighborhood groups and city leadership in any city where everybody is able to weigh in on the impacts and changes to a place, and that that’s done early. I’m on the ULI Prize for Innovation jury, and this year we awarded that prize to Jeanne Gang from Studio Gang. And Studio Gang has this amazing process that they run, and it’d be interesting to link to in your show notes, you could find it on our website, where they actually do work with a community about designing that community without ever building another building, and improving it without ever building another building.
And that’s a great process, because it’s community-created. It’s shown that, over time, they do get some improvement in the built infrastructure, which is great. But it’s not development first, community second. It’s community first, development second. And I think if that’s the mentality that a neighborhood has, it’s really good. But, look, it’s a hard problem. If a neighborhood has great location, water, and sewer are already built in, tree-lined streets and relatively affordable houses, people are going to buy them and people are going to sell them. So, it’s a problem that will never go away and I think sensitivity to it is always important.

Nick Greenhalgh:
Great. In 2013, amid development of the downtown corridor, you said Union Station is a, quote, “game changer” for the city. In the last year, that area has received a lot of negative coverage for crime and drug activity, with a local transit union leader calling the Union Station bus concourse “a lawless hell hole” at the end of 2021. How does Union Station rehab its image and return to the tourist attraction and transportation hub it was intended to be?

Chris Frampton:
It’s pretty close already. I think Union station’s a really interesting example of something that East West focuses on a lot. Other companies do, too. Developers do, too. Municipalities do, too. Which is: “How do you leave a project after you’re finished with the right resources and tools to deal with challenges?” At Union Station, there are… I think this is right. I think there’s 12 metropolitan districts. Of those, each has a maintenance district fee that provides capital to deal with problems. And then, of course you have RTD operating the train station. And so, when all of these challenges came up… Which, again, we just shut down, and then six months later, when we really hadn’t reopened yet, we still had these problems. So, fortunately there, there was a mechanism by which people could come together.
And so, the building owners, the condominium owners, the retailers who are there, RTD, the residents of the apartment buildings who can often be overlooked because they don’t own, but those folks too got engaged. And that group of people started meeting actually weekly, got incredible support and engagement from the police chief, which is an obviously crucial thing to have happen, and that group got on it; up to and including learning some stuff about the public space that we’ve built, which we hadn’t gotten right, and which is going to be improved by next spring. I hope. So, lots of efforts were made there. There were definitely some unfortunate and sad things that happened in the interim, for sure.

Nick Greenhalgh:
Can you talk about those improvements you mentioned at all?

Chris Frampton:
Yeah. The work is being done all along the 17th Street Promenade today. That is a metropolitan district and they do have some funding, and so they’re making changes to where the parkland works. We had, in essence, created just seating. And what we know, and what I’ve learned in a lot of public space work is: seating’s great, seating’s really important, but public spaces need to be programmed, and we really hadn’t put together a programming component. And so, those guys have gone back. They’re looking at it more holistically. You can see the success where there is programming in place, which is the same, fundamentally, group of people on the LoDo side of Union Station, where those problems never really emerged.
And there’s the fountain. Fountains are amazing. What they do, they make spaces smaller without making them smaller. They get people wet, which is good. And the grove of trees over on the other side and the retail facing out. And then, there’s good programming there. So, that’s the thing we kind of learned on the backside. I think we’ve done a good job of navigating through it. One thing I will say, which is really interesting, is obviously during COVID, RTD was just empty. People weren’t going to work. People then, once they started going to work again, didn’t feel safe. Mostly because they were afraid of getting COVID. And so, RTD in particular faced a lot of challenges. Revenue challenges. They don’t get a ton of their revenue from the fare box, but what they were getting, they were no longer getting. And then, there’s a whole group of people who were supposed to be in the space who were missing. And so, that was definitely a challenge. That generally is returning. RTD is not all the way to full capacity, but the Union Station lines are super popular.

Nick Greenhalgh:
I think it’s interesting, the differences just on two sides of the same building.

Chris Frampton:
Yeah. It’s interesting.

Nick Greenhalgh:
That you’ll learn from one side of the building to apply to the other.

Chris Frampton:
But I do want to say… It’s really important to me. You can go there today. Right now, while we’re talking, there’s roughly 60 people in line to get their sandwich at Whole Foods Bird Call. And Sweetgreen has got a line wrapping all the way into the back of the building, and the doors are open on Kaffe Landskap. So, it is no longer a hell hole.

Nick Greenhalgh:
My last question here before we jump into some student ones. On East West’s website, the company says, “We start by thinking big and then we go even bigger.” How has that manifested itself in one of your projects? What could be bigger than big?

Chris Frampton:
Yeah, you keep doing this to me. I saw that one. I was like, “We need to take that down.” No, I what we mean by that, which it probably doesn’t come across, is when we think big, we certainly for sure do not think bigger building. Taller building. Bigger project.
But we do like to push things. We want to do things differently. And I think it’s a little bit the character of the folks who work at East West Partners. We like creativity. We like changing things. So, I think that’s part of it. We’re always trying to say, “Okay, how can we do even more?” And, listen, we can’t always do everything that we want to do, but we’re trying. So, Cirque is a new hotel that we’re developing in Snowmass and we really have thought completely differently about how to do that hotel. Now, real estate’s a huge business, right? Biggest business in the world?
So, we were stealing ideas from hotels elsewhere. Auberge, Chileno Bay, is an example. So, we’re stealing ideas, but that project is very much a different way to do a condominium hotel, where we focused first on the condominium experience and the hotel’s experience second. And that is different, and that’s an idea of saying, “Okay, we’re going to do this thing which has been done before, but we’re going to really try to do it differently.” So, we really do. “We take a big idea and then we try to make it better,” might be a better way to say it.

Nick Greenhalgh:
Great. We’ll now shift to some questions submitted by both undergraduate and graduate students at Daniels. We’ll include one or two in the podcast that you’re listening to, but we’ll have a couple more in our show notes for listeners to check out. Let’s get into the first one.

Cheryl Thomson:
Hey, Chris. My name is Cheryl and I’m a first-year student in the REBE master’s program at the University of Denver. These days of post-COVID, retaining great employees seem to be a constant challenge. What would be your number one suggestion you would give to your directors in maintaining trust and loyalty from your employees?

Chris Frampton:
Yeah, I think that’s really a fun question. I’m actually not sure there’s one thing, but maybe I could break it down to three. I’d say first and foremost, it’s incredibly important to be super transparent with your team. Just yesterday our CFO, Jay Lambiotte, walked our entire company through our financials, and that’s the kind of transparency that I mean. I think that transparency about their performance, how can you be better and how are you doing well, oftentimes forgotten. Don’t take getting the work done and be like, “Oh, well, sure. You were supposed to. That’s what we said we were going to do.” It’s still an accomplishment, right? We have this problem with the Broncos. If they don’t score a touchdown on every drive, we boo them. And then when they score, we’re kind of like, “Yeah, whatever. You should have scored.”
Yeah. I am a Broncos fan. So, I think transparency is really important. I do think that a workplace that really values collaboration is a huge deal. So, folks who are working in a company are not taskmasters but are part of the decision-making, lead projects on their own, and they’re given room to work, is a really, really big deal. I would say third, I do think this is a big deal, great folks want to work at companies who are doing great things, and so I think that helps a lot. That would be a really big one. And then, it doesn’t hurt to pay well.

Nick Greenhalgh:
Sure. Great. Let’s jump into our second student question.

Evan Katopodis:
Hello, Chris. My name is Evan and I’m a sophomore majoring in real estate and the built environment. My question for you is: What are some of the top sustainability and innovative design trends you are seeing today? Thank you.

Chris Frampton:
There’s a few. There’s nothing faster moving than sustainability. It’s unbelievable to me actually when East West first started working on sustainable issues in Northstar at Lake Tahoe. And at the time, we really didn’t even know what we were doing. We had a guy who worked in that and we would do things like build walls out of blue jean insulation. Pretty cool idea actually. So, I’ve been lucky enough to watch that trend grow. Today, there are a few things. We really break it down into three ways to think about sustainability. So, the first, which we’ve done a pretty good job across the spectrum of, is just thinking about how to use less electricity in a space. So, we’ve kind of already won that fight, so you can’t even buy an incandescent light bulb that will light up a garage anymore.
So, we’ve done that stuff. Elevators have gotten better. Refrigerators and Energy Star. All those things. We’ve done a really good job on that front. So, that’s sort of the operating part. The second is: What is the source of your electricity? East West is super focused on this. It is our stated commitment to not building a building that’s not net zero operating. Super complicated issue. Kind of lives where did 10 years ago in that, “What does it mean to be net zero?” Do you have all renewable energy sources in your project? Are you buying credits? What is your utility doing? Et cetera. That the whole argument against Tesla in Montana because all the fuel comes from natural gas. And then, the third, and this may be where the most innovation is happening, is in the embedded carbon in the building.
If you remember, 50% of carbon use in a project is in the construction of the project. And so, there are fun things that at first sounded really great. CLT. We were doing a few CLT buildings, which is awesome technology. And for those who don’t know, cross-laminated timber, so you’re using a renewable resource to build your building. But if you’re bringing the timber from Northeast Canada to Albuquerque, well, maybe it’s not that good. And so, around those lines, and you can actually… The folks at Lendlease are really getting good at this. There’s a whole process of actually considering procurement and considering your embedded carbon at the same time.
It’s new. It’s a trend. We’re at the beginning of it. There’s not a perfect standard. But you can kind of look at something and say, “Well we could do board-applied stucco or we could do brick, and the cost is going to be generally the same, so what is the embedded carbon in that?” And if you’re here and that brick is coming from somewhere with clay, which is nowhere near here, that’s probably more embedded carbon than if you’re using a board-applied stucco, but you’re getting the stucco material off of I-70. So, that’s probably the place where the most innovation is going on. I want to say, and I do mean this. Two other things, if you don’t mind, as long as you got a microphone in front of me.

Nick Greenhalgh:
Go ahead.

Chris Frampton:
So, the first is: This is a thing that real estate can do. The built environment is responsible for a massive percentage of global warming, and global warming is a massive threat. We’re not confused about that, I don’t think, in any way anymore. And so, we actually have a very rare opportunity to have a direct impact in the work that we do. And that is rare. It is very rare that you can take on a massive international issue and actually be able to do something about it. So, I think that’s really a big thing. I also think there’s a tendency to think it costs more.
We did our net zero building in Snowmass called Electric Pass Lodge. We call it “EPL” for short. And EPL, by the time we got done figuring out the systems and putting in the face change material and triple pane windows and earth tubes, and all these things that have to cost a fortune, we actually found out it cost a little less. And when we did the 1916th Street building, which is DaVita headquarters, the way that worked out is they actually got to decide gold or platinum in the building, and they said, “We want platinum,” and the increase in cost was two-and-a-half percent. So, it doesn’t have to be some sort of, “I either build a Tesla and that’s it.” There’s a bunch of stuff in between, and it’s really figured out at the margins.

Nick Greenhalgh:
Great. We’re onto our last closing question here. As a voice of experience, what’s something you’d like to pass on to our listeners?

Chris Frampton:
Oh, I hate being a voice of experience. I don’t know. Create terrific places. I mean, I’m assuming the people who are listening to this are interested in real estate development from an academic point of view and then moving on to their careers. And do good work. It’s so much more valuable than just about anything else. I love Twitter. I’ve got ADHD. I don’t really know. I shouldn’t say that, because it’s kind of rude to people who actually do. But I’ve got a really short attention span, so Twitter’s sort of perfect for me. And there’s RE Twitter. It’s full of real estate people.
But it’s mostly, as far as I can tell, bros talking about how to cold call people about self-storage, and how they set up their yields, and what they did to get the loan, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Don’t do that. Just don’t do it. We don’t need another self-storage unit ever. And, yes, you’ll make money, and I’m sure it’s important, but that amount of work could be put into lots of great things. And by the way, I will not accept, “But it’s a nice self-storage.” No, it doesn’t matter. It’s self-storage. No, I would say: Do great work.

Nick Greenhalgh:
Great. Well, that was Chris Frampton, CEO of East West Partners, joining us on this edition of the VOE Podcast from the Daniels College of Business. Chris, thank you so much for your time and your insightful advice.

Chris Frampton:
Thanks for having me.

Nick Greenhalgh:
For more on this episode, including additional details on East West’s progress at Cherry Creek West and more insights from that Downtown Denver Partnership report, be sure to check out our show notes. You can find those and more at daniels dot du dot edu slash voe dash podcast. And, if that wasn’t enticing enough, Chris answered two additional student questions on how he spurned a career in journalism to join the family development business and what sustainability practices he thinks will become commonplace in future projects. The VOE Podcast is an extension of Voices of Experience, the signature speaker series at the Daniels College of Business, sponsored by US Bank. Patrick Orr and Chloe Smith are our sound engineers, alumnus Joshua Metzel wrote our theme and I’m Nick Greenhalgh. Until next time, be sure to subscribe and leave us a rating and review.